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Jimmy Breslin and Lou Michel: A friendship bound by shoe leather

I spent Sunday heartbroken after hearing Jimmy Breslin, the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning New York City newspaper columnist and author, had died. He was 88 and had been my friend for all of my adult life. Many others will also make this claim, and it will all be true.

Jimmy was loved by many.

The first time I found out about him was when I was watching the TV news in my parent's home on Long Island. He was barking at an off-screen TV news producer as he was preparing to read a commentary on Channel 5 in New York City.

"No, I won't put it out," he said of the cigarette in his hand and started to read, puffs of smoke gathering around him as if in a barroom on Queens Boulevard where he so often held court.

My father and I listened to Jimmy rail against the rich and powerful and how the little guy kept getting smaller.

I'd like to say his sociological tirade inspired me, but no, it was his refusal to douse his smoke and how he waved a dismissive hand and glared as if to say, "Make me put it out."

It was the summer of 1973 and his outrage to authority appealed immensely to me. My father was a cab driver and would pull in the driveway every night with his eyeballs falling out of his head from 12-hour days behind the wheel in Queens.

Dan Herbeck, Jimmy Breslin and Lou Michel

"You know he never forgot where he came from." My dad's words were casual, but they slapped my ears hard.

"You know this guy?"

He told me how his boyhood pal Charley Fenney, who ended up in the writer's wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was Jimmy's best man when he married "the former Rosemary Dattolico." How they had all gone out on dates together before the kids started arriving. My parents would have nine, but Jimmy and Rosemary proved themselves no slouches, starting off with twins and four more after that.

"What's it like to have twins?" my mother, Mary, asked him one night when they were out.

"Like waking up every night in the middle of a train wreck."

Soon after I watched Jimmy on the TV news, I started at Nassau Community College in a program for kids who had not done well in high school and were poor. When I later learned Jimmy bragged that it took him five years to graduate high school, I idolized him.

At Nassau, I found my home at the school newspaper. When it was announced that Jimmy Breslin would be speaking at the college, I begged for the assignment.

After he finished his talk, I walked up to him outside the student union and timidly said, "I think you know my dad, Lou Michel."

"Louie's son." So it was really true. Jimmy never forgot where he came from.

We talked and I finally confessed: "You know, Jimmy, I have never read any of your books."

He looked at me very seriously and said, "You better start or I'll kick you in the (expletive)!"

I laughed out loud. Years later, my own son Chris, an aspiring journalist, would also seek out Jimmy and find him.

Before Jimmy and I parted company outside the student union, I asked, "Can I visit you at your house sometime and show you my articles from the college paper? Get some advice?"

Jimmy wrote down his address in Forest Hills.

I brought with me a series I wrote on child abuse. It told of a New England summer camp I worked at where rich kids were dumped by their parents. I also went into some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods where children, in poverty, were abandoned. My point was children needed love, no matter their background.

God, I wanted to be just like Jimmy.

But when I got to his house, it was barely an afterthought. I could hardly wait to tell him how on a ride-along with two police officers in a very rough neighborhood, we had answered a 911 call in a tenement and were almost impaled.

"The cops knocked on the door and this guy swings it open, holding a sword. You should a seen how the cops drew their guns, Jimmy!"

No bullets flew that day, but in retelling the story to Jimmy, a lifelong friendship bound by the burning of shoe leather began.

A couple times, I overshot the mark with Jimmy. On one memorable occasion, I had called him maybe seven or eight times on a Saturday afternoon when he was pounding out a Sunday column for the New York Daily News. I wanted to tell him about a guy who grew up in North Tonawanda and had a book coming out exposing how Sen. Ted Kennedy got away with murder in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Massachusetts.

Jimmy screamed at me to stop bugging him and slammed down the receiver. With my ears ringing, I called the author, Leo Damore, and said I didn't do so good at trying to plug his book.

Damore's book, "Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up," became an instant best-seller. I resisted the urge to call Jimmy and say, "I told you so." Ever-faithful time healed what words could not, and Jimmy and I were back on friendly terms.

When fellow Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck and I were getting ready to go on a book tour to promote our New York Times best-seller, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing," Jimmy called my home and my wife told him the name of the New York City hotel where we were staying.

I was sitting alone in my darkened room having a panic attack. Without even reading a page of the book, many people, including "Tuesdays with Morrie" author Mitch Albom, were condemning us for writing about a terrorist. And here Dan and I thought we had done a public service to expose the man responsible for what remains the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the United States.

I picked up the phone and Jimmy, no stranger to criticism, assured me Dan and I had done the right thing.

"You tell them you came upon a mass murder and followed up like any other self-respecting reporter to hear what the murderer had to say."

My obsessing stopped.

The next morning Katie Couric grilled us on the "Today Show" about McVeigh's blowing up the Murrah Building and its daycare center filled with children. I thought about Jimmy and belted out the words, "You think I wouldn't want to strangle McVeigh if one of my children was killed?"

Couric invited us back the next morning for another appearance. Thank you, Jimmy.

A few weeks later on Easter Sunday 2001, Jimmy paid me the highest possible tribute and wrote a column about what Dan and I had accomplished. He used Easter as his hook. He mentioned how McVeigh's upcoming execution would not begin to settle the score for what he had done. Jimmy suggested readers take a look around them and contemplate the fact that Christianity was founded on an execution 2,000 years earlier.

The last time I saw Jimmy was about a year ago, after Dan and I had participated in a taping for a public television documentary on the Oklahoma City bombing.

Jimmy's second wife – Ronnie Eldridge, a New York City politician he married after Rosemary died – had asked if we wanted something to drink. Dan said a glass of water would be fine.

As Dan sipped the water and we chatted, Jimmy suddenly seemed to notice the tall water glass.

"Is water the best we can do for you?" he asked Dan.

Water was perfect. To be in Jimmy's presence was tonic enough for any journalist.

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